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Psalm 32

Sunday March 1st 2020 — First Sunday of Lent

Pastor Galen Zook

Psalm 32

Selah: Life in a Minor Key

Today we begin a new sermon series for the season of Lent entitled “Selah: Life in a Minor Key,” where for the next five weeks we will focus on the Psalms in our lectionary readings.

The book of Psalms was the “United Methodist Hymnal” of the Israelite people — it was their collection of poems and songs that were composed and compiled over the course of hundreds of 500 years, ranging from the time of King David through the end of the Babylonian exile.

Some of the songs were composed by the Temple musicians known as the Korahites. Others were written by King David himself, and still others were written by anonymous individuals – perhaps farmers and shepherds, construction workers, homemakers, soldiers, or servants.

The Psalms are a sort of music of the soul. Many of the songs express deep and heartfelt emotion. Some extol the glorious nature of God, others are cries of anguish or lament written during times of suffering. Some of the Psalms were like the African American spirituals that we have in our hymnal — written by an oppressed people who were longing to be set free but who had a deep faith and trust that one day God would deliver them.

Interspersed throughout the Psalms are certain musical notations whose meaning has unfortunately been lost to us. One such term is selah – which was most likely a technical musical term that may have indicated a break in the text or performance or perhaps a cue for the choir to repeat a litany. Or it may have been an instruction for a certain musical instrument — such as a drum or cymbal — to emphasize a word or phrase. 

For our purposes, let us hear the term selah as an invitation to pause and reflect on God’s grace and forgiveness in our lives, an invitation to recommit ourselves to following Jesus wholeheartedly during this Lenten season and beyond.

This morning we begin with Psalm 32, a psalm of David, in which King David describes the agony of unconfessed sin, and extols the virtues and blessings of having our sins forgiven. Ultimately, David leads us to rejoice in the Lord’s goodness and mercy towards us and to proclaim it to those around us.

Raise Your Hand if You’ve Been Difficult to Live With

The story is told of a massive prayer meeting that took place during the American Great Awakening of the mid 18th century. Over 800 men had gathered together to pray, with the famous revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards presiding over the meeting.

During the meeting, a woman sent a message asking the men to pray for her husband, who she said had become unloving, prideful, and difficult to live with.

Edwards read the note in private and then, thinking that perhaps the man described was present, decided to read the note to the 800 men and ask if the man who had been described would raise his hand so that the whole assembly could pray for him. Three hundred men raised their hands!

Unconfessed Sin

I’m not going to ask us to raise our hands this morning if we’ve ever been unloving, prideful, or difficult to live with! The reality is that many of us would probably fit at least one of those categories, and most if not all of us are probably walking around with some sort of guilt about something we’ve done or some way that we’ve treated someone in the past. 

Perhaps some of us can identify with King David, who said, “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah” (Psalm 32:3-4).

Perhaps some of you can remember a time when we were so wracked with guilt that you couldn’t sleep until you admitted what you had done. Like King David, it felt like God’s hand was heavy upon you, leading, prodding and cajoling you to admit what you had done, like a parent leading their child back to the store to admit to the clerk that they stole a candy bar or a stick of gum. 

Of course, there are many times when we might feel tempted to push aside those feelings of guilt or remorse rather than admit the mistake that we’ve made. Rather than confess our errors, we make excuses or blame others. We rationalize away the bad things that we’ve done, comparing them to the much worse things that others have done. We work harder, to compensate for where we’ve gone astray, or we try to drown out the voice of the Holy Spirit by filling our lives with noise or activity, or indulging in excesses that numb our senses or consume our time or attention. 

If we continually ignore the voice of the Holy Spirit, eventually we might feel less guilt or remorse for what we’ve done. When this happens, we may think that the problem has been solved, since we no longer feel that prompting and nagging in the back of our minds. But an active conscience is not the problem — indeed our conscience is a warning light that indicates that a much deeper issue is going on.

Ignoring the Warning Lights

A number of years ago I had a car that continually had engine problems. It felt like the engine warning light was always coming on, and every time I took the car into the repair shop, the mechanic would spout off a whole list of things that needed to be fixed. Eventually I just started to ignore the engine light when it came on, because I knew I didn’t have the money to repair whatever issue the engine light was trying to alert me about anyway. I drove around with the engine light on for over a year, and eventually the engine light turned off — all by itself!

I thought that I was a genius, and had solved the problem by simply ignoring it — until I went in for my emissions test, and failed due to the fact that my engine light wasn’t working. It turns out that the engine light had been on for so long that it had burned out – so now not only did I have to fix whatever problem was wrong with the engine, but now I had to get a new engine light bulb as well! (Fortunately the light bulb was not very expensive. Unfortunately, the engine was). 

Just as ignoring the warning lights on our car usually leads to larger problems down the road, ignoring the promptings to confess our moral failings can lead us to more harm and damage than if we had simply admitted and corrected our mistakes in the first place. If we continually ignore the promptings of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we can become cold, and callous. We develop hardened hearts, and eventually we may not even be able to recognize ourselves.

Let the Sun (Son) Shine In

But King David tells us in Psalm 32 that there is another way! In the form of a testimonial, King David tells us his story — that after all those sleepless nights, wracked with guilt and shame, after all those days, or weeks, or months, or perhaps even years that his body was wasting away from the knowledge of the pain and agony that he had caused, after groaning in silence, and feeling the strength of his body dry up like the heat of summer, he decided to acknowledge his sin before the Lord. He chose to no longer hide his iniquity. He confessed his transgressions to the LORD, and he says of God, “and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah” (Psalm 32:5).

You forgave the guilt of my sin! Selah. Pause, repeat and enunciate that last phrase! Sing it again, bang the drum: You forgave the guilt of my sin!

What a humbling, yet amazingly simple solution to David’s problem of sin! What a revolutionary way to deal with our guilty consciences — admit that we’ve done wrong! Get it all out in the open. Rather than withdrawing behind the curtains of remorse and shame, open the windows and let the light shine in. Stand openly before God and to confess our wrongdoing, and to allow God’s grace and mercy to bathe us in light.

When King David acknowledges his guilt and wrongdoing and experiences God’s forgiveness, then his mouth begins to flow forth with praise. He proclaims, 

Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them. You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah (Psalm 32:6-7).

And he ends the Psalm with,

Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD. Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart (Psalm 32:10-11).

What a stark contrast from the man whose body had been wasting away, whose strength had “dried up as by the heat of summer” (Psalm 32:4). Acknowledging his sin, getting it all out there in the open, and asking for God’s forgiveness ended up being exponentially more freeing and life-giving and liberating than hiding his sin or squashing his guilty conscience, and David wanted everyone to know firsthand the grace and mercy and forgiveness that he had experienced.

Not Just for Individuals 

Now, lest we think that confession and repentance applies only to us as individuals, I want to suggest that openly admitting mistakes is also a best practice for organizations, churches, businesses and institutions. Missteps covered up by organizations are usually uncovered anyway, often causing the institution to fall apart. On the other hand, openly admitting the failings of the organization can often lead to new life and new possibilities.

When Howard Schultz resigned from Starbucks in 2000, the coffee chain was experiencing steady growth. Eight years later, when Starbucks was reeling from a bad economy and stiff competition, Schultz resumed his role as Starbucks’ chief executive. He faced a challenging mission: to lead a turnaround. In an interview about his return in Harvard Business Review, Schultz commented that before the company could move forward, they had to deal with the past by honestly admitting their mistakes. 

Shultz said,

The decisions we had to make were very difficult, but first there had to be a time when we stood up in front of the entire company as leaders and made almost a confession—that the leadership had failed the 180,000 Starbucks people and their families…We had to admit to ourselves and to the people of this company that we owned the mistakes that were made. Once we did, it was a powerful turning point. It’s like when you have a secret and get it out: The burden is off your shoulders.

Lenten Invitation

This is what this Lenten season is all about. It’s about a turning point, about getting the burden off our shoulders, about asking for God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness, and peace in our lives.  It’s about drawing back the curtains of our lives, and letting the light of Christ shine into our lives, to illuminate those hidden places in our lives where we may have allowed guilt or shame to take over or control us. It’s about allowing God to bring those things out into the open, so that we can receive God’s grace and forgiveness to cleanse us of our guilt, and God’s freedom to liberate us from our shame.

Like King David, like Howard Schultz and the Starbucks company, like those 300 men in that prayer meeting during the Great Awakening, let’s acknowledge our errors and mistakes. Let us not ignore the warning lights. Let us confess our sins, and let’s open ourselves up to God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness. Then we can truly “Be glad in the LORD and rejoice…and shout for joy” (Psalm 32:11) Selah!

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday — February 26th 2020

Pastor Galen Zook

Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21

Pics or It Didn’t Happen

We live in an age dominated by social media, when it seems that the majority of interactions that take place between human beings happens on-line or via a screen. 

And in this age of social media, we are so often obsessed with capturing, documenting and sharing even the most ordinary and mundane parts of our lives. The saying “Pics or it didn’t happen” could very well be the mantra of our social networking age. So often an experience is only thought to be real, believable, or authentic if it has been appropriately captured and shared on at least one social media platform. Two people are only thought to be in a real relationship when they have become “facebook official,” and one of the primary considerations of newly engaged couples is what their instagram wedding hashtag is going to be.

In this social media-saturated society, rituals and ceremonies, including even the most personal or religious ones, seem to have no value unless they can be appropriately documented and shared.

As one author stated:

Activities [take] on meaning not for their basic content but for the way they are turned into content, disseminated through the digital network, and responded to. In this context, your everyday experiences are only limited by your ability to share them and by your ability to package them appropriately-  a photograph with a beautiful filter and a witty caption, or a tweet containing an obscure movie reference that hints at hidden depths.

In this age, it’s become increasingly difficult to distinguish truth from falsehood, genuine and heartfelt emotions from those actions motivated by a desire to enhance our on-line persona.

Nothing New Under the Sun

Now, all of this may seem like a purely modern phenomenon. Indeed, our ability to capture and share the most seemingly intimate moments of our lives has  dramatically increased due to modern advancements in digital technology. 

But our Scripture Lesson from the Gospel of Matthew this evening reveals that the religious elites of Jesus’s day also seemed concerned with cultivating their outward personas and presenting their best curated selves to the world. 

Jesus referred to these seemingly uber religious people as “hypocrites” — a word deriving from the Greek word for actors or stage players. These religious hypocrite actors seemed to be concerned mostly with putting on a show and demonstrating their outward religiosity.

In truth, they regularly engaged in religious behaviors that we today would consider admirable — such as giving money (or “alms”) to those who were in need. Praying on a regular basis, and even fasting, going without food for certain lengths of time — a practice that was designed to remind them of their need and utter dependence on God.

But rather looking into the faces of those who were in need and allowing their hearts to break for those who lived under the constant yoke of oppression, these religious actors sounded trumpets to announce to the world that they were giving their money to the poor — sort of the ancient equivalent to snapping a selfie with someone who is homeless, and posting it to instagram with the hashtag #doinggood! 

Rather than crying out to God in anguish and grief over the injustices of the world, these religious leaders prayed prayers in the public square that showed off their seemingly theological and intellectual superiority — the ancient equivalent to taking quotes out of context from famous civil rights heroes and retweeting them in an attempt to demonstrate just how “woke” we think we are. 

And, rather than forgoing the basic necessities of life that in such a way that would have put these religious leaders in a position to better understand and identify with the socially marginalized or economically oppressed, these religious actors of Jesus’s day gave up their most insignificant luxuries, but disfigured their faces and intentionally looked dismal in order to garner the admiration and respect of those around them.

#Nomorehashtags

Jesus told his followers to not be like those hypocrites. But it’s interesting to note that Jesus did not tell his followers to stop giving to those in need — in fact he assumed that we would do so. He said, “whenever you give alms” (Matt. 6:3). He simply wants us not to feel the need to announce to the world that we are doing so. 

He didn’t tell us to stop praying. Again, he said, “whenever you pray” (Matt. 6:5). But when we pray, Jesus told us to enter our closets and shut the door. 

And he didn’t tell us to stop fasting. He assumed that we would continue to do so. But he encouraged us not to make a big show of fasting in order to impress others, but instead to try and make it not so obvious that we are fasting. After all, the point of all of these actions is to help us grow in our knowledge and intimacy with God — not to impress our friends or followers.

Jesus wanted his followers to not be so overly concerned and obsessed with what others thought of them, and instead to be more concerned with pleasing God, who sees what we do in secret and who promises to reward us for even those good deeds that go unnoticed, undocumented, and unshared. A God who is concerned more about our relationship status with Jesus than how many likes or heart emojis we receive from our friends and followers.

I believe that Jesus wanted to free his followers from what has been described in our day as the “paralysing self-consciousness” that fills so many users of social media, ”[that] sense that no social broadcast is good enough, no tweet or Facebook status update reflects the mix of cool, wit, and elan that will generate feedback and earn the user more social capital.

In fact, I believe that Jesus wants to free us from all forms of captivity, internal and external, from anything that might hold us back from truly being present in the moment, and from truly connecting with God and those around us. Jesus wants to lead us into a place where we can be honest with ourselves, and honest before God. Where we can acknowledge who we really are, and where we can be transformed into the people God wants us to become. 

Becoming these sorts of people will involve change, but not the sort of temporary or surface-level change that comes from beach-bod ready fad diets or extreme home makeovers. 

The Fasting God Desires

In calling for us to change, to repent and to turn in the opposite direction, Jesus stood in the tradition of the Israelite prophet Joel, who called the people to “rend your hearts and not your garments” (Joel 2:13). Jesus followed in the footsteps of the prophet Isaiah, who proclaimed God’s words to the Israelite people:

Is not this the fast that I choose:

    to loose the bonds of injustice,

   …

to let the oppressed go free,

    and to break every yoke?

…to share your bread with the hungry,

    and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,

    and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Is. 58:5-6).

 

Isaiah said that when we engage in this type of fasting, 

then your light shall rise in the darkness

    and your gloom be like the noonday.

The Lord will guide you continually,

    and satisfy your needs in parched places,

    …

and you shall be like a watered garden,

    like a spring of water,

    whose waters never fail. (Is. 58:10-11)

Engaging in this sort of fasting will involve turning away from the fear and the shame that so often holds us captive. It will involve allowing God to heal and restore those areas where we’ve hurt others or been hurt by others. It will involve acknowledging where we’ve gone astray, and returning to the God who loves us, whose arms are open wide and outstretched to welcome us back again, no matter what we’ve done or how far we’ve strayed. 

When we open ourselves up to receive the love, and grace, and mercy, and forgiveness that Jesus offers, then we will pray, and fast, and help those who are in need — not because it will enhance our social or religious standing, or win us more friends, or followers, but because in doing so, we are drawn even more deeply and intimately into relationship with the God who loves us, the God who knows us even better than we know ourselves.

In a few short moments we will be invited to come forward, to receive the imposition of ashes pressed upon our foreheads. And as we do so, I want to invite us to meditate on these few short lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday:

Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood

Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still

Even among these rocks,

Our peace in His will

 

Transformed

Sunday February 23rd 2020 — Transfiguration Sunday

Pastor Galen Zook

Matthew 17:1-9

An Early Morning Hike

“Peter! hey, Peter, it’s time to wake up!” Jesus shook Peter as he slept on his mat next to the other disciples. 

“What? What’s wrong?” Peter woke up, startled. He had been sleeping quite soundly.

“Nothing’s wrong — we just need to get an early start” Jesus explained.

“But it’s not even light yet!” Peter protested.

“I know,” said Jesus, rather matter-of-factly, “but we have a long way to go.”

“Where are we going?” asked Peter. 

“We’re taking a little hike up Mount Tabor today.” Jesus said, pointing to the mountain a ways off in the distance. Peter knew that mountain well, since it was one of the mountain peaks on which it was customary to light beacons to inform the northern villages of Jewish holy days and of the beginning of new months. Growing up as a little boy in Galilee, Peter had often stared up at the lights on the mountain, but he had never considered actually climbing the mountain himself.

Jesus told Peter to wake up James and John and get ready to go as quickly as possible so they could get an early start.

It wasn’t uncommon for Jesus to wake up long before everyone else. Frequently the disciples awoke and found that Jesus was off by himself somewhere praying, often for hours at a time. And it wasn’t strange for Jesus to tap Peter, James and John to go with him on some sort of mission or other when he couldn’t take all of the disciples. Peter, James and John had been three of the first disciples to follow him when he walked by their fishing business along the sea of Galilee and invited them to leave everything behind to follow him. Having left everything behind in order to follow Jesus, they give little thought to waking up early to take a short hike with Jesus up a mountain.

But that day’s mountain hike would prove to be much more memorable than they could have ever imagined.

Six Days Prior

It had been six days since Peter and Jesus had had a rather tense altercation, and so it was especially meaningful that Jesus invited Peter to go with him. 

It had all started when Jesus announced to his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem, and then when he got there he would undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, but that three days later he would be raised again (Matt. 16:21). All of the disciples were blindsided by this announcement — this is not at all what they had expected would happen. Jesus — their Lord and master, their teacher, the one who performed miracles and cast out demons and walked on water — Jesus would have to suffer and die? It was absurd!

Peter had taken Jesus aside and told him “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you” (Matt. 16:22). But then Jesus had turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Matt. 16:23).

As you can imagine, this cut Peter deeply. He cared deeply about Jesus, and he believed in Jesus’s mission. After all, Peter had given up everything to follow Jesus! He couldn’t let anything like this happen to Jesus. Perhaps he thought Jesus was just having self-doubts, and needed his friends to rally together behind him. But when Jesus had called him “Satan” — or, “accuser,” and referred to him as a stumbling block, well that hurt.

And then Jesus had proclaimed to all of his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25).  Jesus also told them that there were “some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matt. 16:27).

After all of this, Peter didn’t know what to think. But he was afraid to say anything else, and so he just decided to keep following Jesus and see where it all led.

And so, six days later when Jesus woke up Peter early in the morning and told him they were going to take a hike up Mount Tabor, he dutifully woke up James and John, and the three of them met up with Jesus for an early morning hike up the mountain.

Transfigured

And it was there, on the top of the mountain, which according to Christian tradition was Mount Tabor, that Jesus was transfigured (or transformed) before them. According to the book of Matthew, “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him” (Matt. 17:2-3). 

Peter was once again the first person to speak. But this time, rather than trying to stop Jesus, he tried to express his support. Peter said “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Matt 17:4).  Peter would much rather that Jesus stay here, on this mountain, with his face shining and his clothes dazzling white, talking with Moses and Elijah, than to suffer at the hands of the chief priests and elders! 

To Peter, this must have seemed like a sign that Jesus wasn’t going to have to die. The sheer power and magnitude of this event, the gloriousness of Jesus’s shining face and dazzling white clothes, the magnificence of standing in the presence of these ancient heroes of the faith — it seemed like Jesus (and vicariously Peter, James, and John) had arrived. Perhaps they could stay here for all of eternity! Building a dwelling for Jesus, and Moses and Elijah here on this mountain — high above the fray, far away from the scheming scribes and elders and the corrupt religious leaders — seemed like not only the most logical thing to do, but also the perfect happy ending to this whole messianic event.

The Voice from the Cloud

But, as in the days of Moses on Mount Sinai, a bright cloud overshadowed them (Matt. 17:5, cf. Exodus 26:16), and a voice spoke from the cloud, saying “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Matt. 17:5). 

Peter, James and John were overcome with fear and fell to the ground, “But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid’” (Matt. 17:5). When they looked up, Moses and Elijah were gone. Jesus was standing there by himself. As they were making their way down the mountain, Jesus told them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after he had been raised from the dead.

What was the point of this whole event? Why was Jesus’s appearance transformed for a time? Why did Moses and Elijah appear and talk with him? Was this for Jesus’s sake, or ours? What did Moses and Elijah say to Jesus?

Questions about this event abound, but most striking, given the interaction that Peter had had with Jesus six days prior, is the the command uttered by the voice from the cloud to “listen to him.” If Peter, James, and John ever doubted that Jesus was who he said he was, this event must have been a pivotal event in their faith journeys. If they ever wondered whether it had been worth giving up all they had to follow Jesus, and whether it would be worth following Jesus to the end, this event would have sealed the deal.

And so they did listen to him. They paid close and careful attention to everything Jesus said and did. Although they didn’t tell the other disciples what had happened that day, they must have eventually reported the event to Matthew as he was writing this Gospel narrative, as well as to all of the other disciples. 

Seeing Jesus transfigured on the mountain that day must have transformed them, too. No doubt they were a little more in awe of Jesus, a little less prone to wonder whether what Jesus said was really true. A little more willing to follow him wherever he led them.

Listen to Him!

Perhaps you never had a vision of Jesus glowing on the top of a mountain. Perhaps Moses and Elijah never appeared in front of you. Perhaps you never experienced a bright cloud descending upon a mountain and a voice calling out to you. If you haven’t that’s OK — I’ve never experienced anything like that either!

And yet the command that God uttered forth from the cloud is the same command given to us today. Listen to him! Listen to Jesus. Don’t just hear — truly listen. Pay attention, give heed to what he says. Christ’s words are life and truth. The words of Christ deserve our full attention and devotion. And when we listen — truly listen — and put into practice the words of Christ, they will change and transform us.

This is why we give special honor to the words spoken by Jesus. This is why traditionally we stand when the Gospel lesson is read. This is why many Bibles print the words of Jesus in red. This is why the Gospel account has been told and retold throughout the ages. This is why we gather weekly on Sunday morning, to remind one another of the words that Jesus spoke, why we share in communion together and remember the sacrifice that Jesus made for us. This is why, every year, we tell and retell of the birth and the life and ministry of Christ, as well as Christ’s death and resurrection and impending return.

Lent

This is also why, every year, during the season leading up to the remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection, we enter a season called Lent — a time set aside for focusing our attention on Christ’s sacrifice for us, a time to reflect on our need and dependence on Jesus. A time to pay careful attention to what Jesus would have us do.

In order to focus our attention on Christ, some of us may decide to give up chocolate, or alcohol, or coffee, or TV, or social media for the period of 40 days (not counting Sundays) between Ash Wednesday and Holy Thursday (when we remember Jesus’s last supper). Others may decide to pray or read Scripture more regularly, or to give away more of our time and resources to those in need. 

Whatever you might decide to give up or do during this upcoming season of Lent, let us remember that the most important thing we can do is to listen to Jesus. To hear the words that he wants to say to us — which are not always the words that we might want him to say, but they are the words that we need to hear nonetheless. Let us hear his words of love, and truth, justice, and mercy. Grace, forgiveness, and transformation. Hear his words calling us to deny ourselves, to leave it all behind, to take up our cross and follow him.  To be willing even to lose our lives for his sake. 

Let us turn our focus and attention on Christ. Let us listen to him, and let us allow ourselves to be transformed.

God Gives the Growth

Sunday February 16th 2020

Pastor Galen Zook

1 Cor. 3:1-9

Family

When I was growing up, many of my family members lived far away — some in other states — so we didn’t get to see them very often. But across the street from our house lived Aunt Ruth Johnson. Aunt Ruth Johnson was a lovely lady with beautiful curly white hair, who always sat out on her green glider on her painted green front porch, who greeted everyone who walked past with a big smile and a hearty “hello.”

Aunt Ruth was not in any way related to us, but she insisted that we call her “aunt,” and we were happy to oblige. In many ways, Aunt Ruth spoiled my brother and me. When our family took her grocery shopping, she would always give my brother and me a couple coins or a dollar bill which we could spend on whatever we wanted. Our family didn’t own a TV, so our family would often go across the street and visit Aunt Ruth so we could watch Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy, or whatever other game show happened to be on. Aunt Ruth always had some special treat or snack to share with us.

In many ways, although she was not related to us by blood, Aunt Ruth Johnson truly was an aunt to us.

It Takes a Village

There’s an old African proverb that says, “It takes a village to raise a child.” In other words, an entire community of people must interact with children in order for those children to experience and grow in a safe and healthy environment. Aunt Ruth Johnson was part of the “village” that raised me.

The “Family” at Corinth.

In his letter to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul is writing to members of his “family.” Although he is not related to them by blood, he addresses them as “brothers and sisters,” since they are all members of the family of God. Indeed throughout Paul’s writings he often refers to the churches he is writing to as brothers and sisters, and encouraged others believers to think of each other in familial terms as well. 

In his letter to Timothy, Paul exhorts his mentee, “Do not speak harshly to an older man, but speak to him as to a father, to younger men as brothers, to older women as mothers, to younger women as sisters—with absolute purity” (1 Tim. 5:1-2). As members of Christ’s Church we are to think of one another as family.

Now, like every family, the Corinthians had been experiencing some quarreling and bickering. 

It seems that the church was divided into factions, with some saying that they follow Paul, who had planted their church, others said they follow Apollos, who had pastored their church at one point. Some say they follow Cephas (or the Apostle Peter), and still others say that they follow Christ. Paul, of course, wants all of them to follow Christ, but he wants them to be united as one body as they do so. 

While it may be normal for families to have their squabbles, the fighting had gotten so extreme that Paul felt that he had to intervene, and so he wrote this letter. 

Paul tells them that the quarreling and bickering and jealousy that is happening among them is stunting their spiritual growth! Paul refers to them as “infants in Christ” (1 Cor. 3:1) who are not even ready for solid food. When Paul had originally introduced them to Jesus, he says that he had fed them spiritual milk, since they were spiritually like newborns. In other words, he made the Gospel message simple and understandable for them. He didn’t speak in abstract philosophical concepts or use bombastic theological terminology. He wanted them to grasp the beauty and the simplicity of the Christian message, and so he had proclaimed to them the pure and simple essence of the faith.

But by now they should be spiritually mature, healthy adults, or at the very least toddlers, ready to eat solid food! They should be doing the work of the Kingdom, they should be proclaiming the Word of God and making disciples. They should be bearing fruit and leading others to Christ. They should be actively working in the world to bring about God’s righteousness, justice and peace. 

But because of the “jealousy and quarreling” (1 Cor. 3:3) that is taking place among them, they haven’t really grown up or spiritually matured. They aren’t living out their faith. Instead, Paul says, they are acting like babies. 

Stunted Growth

Now this is a rather harsh criticism coming from the Apostle Paul! But let’s think for a minute about how this may have happened.

As members of the Body of Christ, each one of us has a unique role to play. When we accept Christ as our Lord and Savior and when we are filled with the Holy Spirit, God gives each of us a particular spiritual gift that can be used for the good of the Church. Some are given the gift of teaching, or preaching, others evangelism or discipleship, and still others hospitality or service. 

But in the fractured and fragmented Corinthian church, those gifts were not being used for the upbuilding of the congregation, but rather their wonderful spiritual gifts were being used to further entrench the divides. 

I imagine that all of the teachers, for example, were probably in the “I follow Apollos” faction, since Apollos was known for his wonderful oratorical skills. The evangelists were probably in the “I follow Paul” camp, since Paul was known for planting new churches and proclaiming the Gospel to those who had never heard the Good News. Those who were gifted in hospitality and service probably proclaimed that they were the ones who truly followed Christ, since one of Jesus’s last acts was to model servant leadership by washing his disciples feet. 

Instead of using their various gifts to help each other grow, they were tearing each other down — arguing and fighting about which of their gifts were the most important and significant.

Planting, Watering, and Building

And so Paul reminds them that each one of their gifts are important, each one of their gifts are necessary and essential in the Body of Christ. The gifts of preaching and teaching are not more important than the gifts of hospitality or service, and the gift of evangelism is not more significant than the gift of discipleship. All are essential for the health and growth of the Body of Christ.

Paul then switches analogies, just to make sure everyone can understand and relate. He moves away from this depiction of the Corinthians as infants and he switches to the image of planting and gardening. 

Paul tells the Corinthians, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6-7). Paul wants them to know that it wasn’t about him or Apollos. Each of them were just playing their part, fulfilling their roles. He had merely planted the seeds. Apollos had merely “watered” the church and helped tend to the young church when it was establishing its roots. But it was ultimately God who helped them grow.

Then Paul switches images again — one more image for good measure — and gives them the picture of a building. Paul tells them, “For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:9). Or, as it says in the Message paraphrase of the Bible, “To put it another way, you are God’s house. Using the gift God gave me as a good architect, I designed blueprints; Apollos is putting up the walls. Let each carpenter who comes on the job take care to build on the foundation! Remember, there is only one foundation, the one already laid: Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:9-11).

Jesus is our foundation, our cornerstone, the one that the Church is built on, and it is God who helps us grow.

Baptism, Confirmation, and Church Membership

In a few moments we are going to be taking in new members of our church by baptism, confirmation, and reaffirmation of membership vows. Becoming a member of a local church is sort of like gaining a whole bunch of aunts (like my Aunt Ruth Johnson), and uncles, and cousins, and brothers and sisters (like the Corinthian church). 

For those of you who are being baptized or confirmed or taken in as members today, your family is about to get a whole lot bigger!

Although we may not be related to each other by blood, we are meant to function together as a family, as a small part of the global family of God. And as a member of Christ’s family, each of us has a vital and significant role to play. Each of us are given spiritual gifts that are necessary and essential for the building up of the church. 

That’s why, when we are baptized or confirmed or become a member of a local church, we don’t just commit to following Christ individually — we commit to faithfully participate in the ministry of the church with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness. We commit our loyalty to Christ, and to do everything in our power to strengthen the ministries of the Church.

But the Baptismal Covenant is not just a covenant made by the persons being baptized or confirmed. When you are baptized or confirmed and become a member of the church, we as a congregation make a commitment to you as well! That’s why we do baptism and confirmation here, on a Sunday morning, with the whole congregation present, rather than in a private ceremony. This is not just a ceremony that involves the people who are being baptized or confirmed. The rest of us don’t just get to sit here and watch. We are all included — we all participate, because we are family. 

As a congregation, we promise that we will surround you with a community of love and forgiveness, so that you may grow in your trust of God, and be found faithful in your service to others. We commit to pray for you, so that you may be a true disciple who walks in the way that leads to life.

Like every family, we’re going to have our share of squabbles and disagreements. And we’re going to make mistakes. We’re not always going to be loving, and there are going to be sometimes that we’re not going to want to forgive. But as a family, it’s important for us to stay centered and focused on Christ. Jesus Christ is the foundation that the Church is built on. And God is the one who ultimately helps us to grow.

So let’s be quick to forgive, so that we can help each other to grow spiritually. Let’s utilize the gifts that God has given us to build up one another, rather than tear each other down. And as we enter into our Baptismal Covenant Service this morning, let’s remember our own baptisms — and the grace of God that has been poured out on each one of us — and let us welcome these new members into our family!

With a Demonstration

Sunday February 9th 2020

Pastor Galen Zook

I Cor. 2:1-5; Matthew 5:13-20

An Eventful Week

This past week was a rather eventful week in the life of our country. From the polar opposite responses to Shakira and Jennifer Lopez’s half-time show at the Super Bowl last Sunday, to speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi literally ripping up a copy of President Trump’s State of the Union Address, to Senator Mitt Romney breaking with his party to vote to remove president Trump from office during the impeachment hearings, the week was not without its share of controversy! 

To me, it was fascinating to see how each of these events were surrounded by discussions about morality. Conversations on TV, and on social media, and around the water cooler centered around who was in the right, and who was in the wrong? Of course in each of these situations, parties on both sides thought they were the ones acting correctly — that they were making the correct moral decisions, which just goes to show how sharply divided we are as a country.

Even the National Prayer Breakfast, an event that is intended to be a visible sign of unity in our country, demonstrated how deep that divide is.

The Church at Corinth

The people of Corinth were also deeply divided and they seemed to want to know whose side the Apostle Paul was on — who did he think was right and who did he think was wrong, to help settle the disputes that were happening in their midst.

As you’ll probably remember, the Corinthian church was sharply divided into various camps – some claiming to follow Paul (who had founded their church), some claiming to follow Apollos (who had pastored their church for a while) and still others said that they followed the apostle Peter, or Jesus Christ himself (see 1 Cor 1:12). We don’t know exactly what all was going on in their midst, since we’re only getting one side of the conversation, but it seemed to be messy.

But rather than playing into the controversy or adding more fuel to the fire, Paul reminds them that when he first preached to them, rather than coming to them with “lofty words or wisdom,” he “decided to know nothing among [them] except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).

In other words, Paul reminds them that their church was founded on the person of Jesus Christ, not on a particular set of political opinions or perspectives or arguments. When Paul started their church he wanted them to fall in love with the person of Jesus, not with Paul’s own views or perspectives. And so he said that he had intentionally “decided to know nothing among [them] except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).

Nothing Except Christ

Now obviously Paul had been well educated as a religious leader and teacher of the law. In the book of Acts we find that Paul was a student of the highly esteemed and renowned Jewish rabbi Gamaliel, and that he had received extensive education in Jewish law and practice (Acts 22:3). Paul had been well versed in the most complex philosophical, ethical, and moral arguments of the day.

But Paul didn’t want the Corinthians to be a group of people who sat around arguing all day. He wanted them to be a living, breathing manifestation of the Gospel. 

And so instead of philosophical arguments and treatises, Paul had offered them first and foremost the good news about the person of Jesus — pure and simple. 

Paul told them the story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, as we find out later in 1 Corinthians — “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). He told them that Christ had appeared to Peter and to the 12, then to five hundred brothers and sisters, and then “last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Cor. 15:8).

Even though the Corinthians had never met Jesus in the flesh, Paul wanted them to know Christ — to fall in love with Jesus.  He wanted them to look to Jesus as their moral guide and compass, not a set of dogmas or rules or principles. Paul wanted them to know and experience Jesus.

And so how did he do that? Well, Paul says that, he came to the Corinthians “with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4) because he wanted their faith to not “rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:5).

Demonstration of the Spirit and of power

“With a demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” One has to wonder exactly what Paul means by a “demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” Most likely he doesn’t mean miracles, since we rarely hear of Paul performing miraculous signs and wonders. 

Most likely he’s not even talking about how powerful his public speaking or preaching skills were, since he says that he came to the Corinthians “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (1 Cor. 2:3). In 2 Cor. 10:10 we find that the Corinthians thought that Paul’s “bodily presence [was] weak, and his speech contemptible.” And so Paul definitely wasn’t talking about his public speaking skills!

And yet, despite all of this, Paul says that he spoke to them “with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4). 

I believe that the demonstration that Paul is talking about here was love — love for God, and love for the Corinthians, and that he was filled with the Holy Spirit. I believe that Paul’s words and actions were infused with a deep sense of Christ’s love, which flowed out of him into the very words that he spoke. I believe that he prayed and cried over each and every word that he spoke to the Corinthian church — both when he was with them in person, and even now as he was writing to them. His words were not based on lofty, abstract concepts, but rather they flowed out of his deep sense of love for God, and love for the people at the church in Corinth.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells the church in Corinth, “I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you” (2 Cor. 2:4).

Can you imagine if this was how Christians approached each and every conversation that we have with coworkers, and on social media about the events going on in our day? Can you imagine if religious leaders today who are called on to speak to issues of morality in our society prayed and cried over the words that they spoke? Can you imagine if our words and our lives were infused with a deep sense of love for all people – including the least and the lost and the hurting and the dying? Can you imagine if that was how we approached discussions of who or what is right and who or what is wrong?

If we were to do that, then I think we could indeed say along with Paul that our “speech and proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power”!

Powerful Words

When words are accompanied by deeds done in love, they become powerful.

In his book Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christian Debate, author Justin Lee recounts his story of growing up in a conservative Christian home, and discovering as a teenager that he experienced same-sex attaction. Believing his attractions to be wrong, Justin Lee sought counseling out of a desire to change his orientation, but this did not work. He prayed and cried out to God to change his feelings, but this too did not produce the results that he wanted. Justin eventually came to accept his sexual orientation as part of his identity. Throughout all of this he never gave up his faith in Christ, despite the fact that he received extremely harsh criticism from many other believers due to his sexual orientation. 

Sadly, when Justin came out to many of the Christians in his life, they either rejected or ostracized him, or came at him armed with Bible passages to try to prove to him that he was in sin, despite the fact that he never even been in a relationship with someone of the same sex.

Toward the end of his book, Justin Lee tells the powerful story of what happened when a famous preacher came to speak on his campus. Justin was excited to meet him because even though the speaker held a conservative theological viewpoint on same-sex marriage, he was known for being compassionate towards those in the Gay community. Justin walked up to him, mentally rehearsing what he was going to say to the speaker, but all he was able to say was “I’m gay,” before the speaker reached out and embraced him with a hug, saying “I’m so glad that you’re here.” The speaker then sat down with Justin and listened to his life story, without judging him and without attempting to offer trite remarks or easy answers.

What stuck out to Justin was that when the speaker gave him that hug, he didn’t know that Justin was a Christian, that he was celibate, or that he had agonized for years over his sexual orientation. None of that mattered to the speaker. He just wanted to let Justin know that he was loved, that he was welcome, and that he was glad Justin was there.

Friends, I believe this is what it looks like for our proclamation of the Gospel to come “with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” We can have the most wonderful, well-articulated arguments, or the most seemingly air-tight conclusive evidence that our perspective is right, but do our friends, and our neighbors, and the people we interact with on social media know that we love them, and that we care about them? More importantly, do they know that Jesus loves them utterly and unconditionally?

In Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, he tells his disciples to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:15). So let’s let our lights shine! This world is desperately in need of truth and moral guidance. But rather than using lofty arguments, let’s let our words be accompanied by deeds done in love. Let’s use our words and actions to point people towards Jesus, the One who loves the whole world so much that he was willing to give his life for us. Let’s love the world with God’s love, and let’s let our proclamation of the Gospel come with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power!